Medieval manuscripts blog

6 posts from November 2022

29 November 2022

The Lady of Las Huelgas

On 31 December 1313, infanta doña Blanca of Portugal (b. 1259, d. 1321), the first-born daughter of Alfonso III, King of Portugal (r. 1238–1248), and granddaughter of Alfonso X the Wise, King of Castile (r. 1252–1284), made charitable donations to various religious houses, churches and hospitals in Castile. Collectively, her donations amounted to over 20,000 maravedís (the currency of the Castilian Kingdom), a small fortune at the time. The details of Blanca’s grants are recorded in a document housed at the British Library (Add Ch 24806), written in Spanish and affixed with her personal seal. This is one of three original charters made at the time. The others are now in the Archivo de la Catedral de Burgos and the Archivo del Monasterio de Las Huelgas respectively. The charter held at the British Library has recently been digitised as part of our Medieval and Renaissance Women project and it can now be viewed online for the first time.

The charter of Blanca of Portugal

Grant of Doña Blanca of Portugal: Add Ch 24806

The principal beneficiary listed in the charter is the Cistercian abbey of Las Huelgas de Burgos, a royal foundation established by the Castilian king, Alfonso VIII (r. 1158–1214), and Leonor Plantagenet (b. 1160, d. 1214), his wife. From its foundation, Las Huelgas was known as a female convent with strong ties to royal women. Many members of the Castilian royal family professed there as nuns, and some of them performed the role of the Lady or señora of the Abbey.

The particularities of this role changed throughout the centuries, but fundamentally it allowed royal women to hold influence over the abbey and to ensure its preeminent position as a religious and economic centre in the kingdom. The responsibility for the abbey’s religious rule and day-to-day running remained with the abbess. Blanca became the Lady of Las Huelgas in 1295, after professing as a nun at the monastery at the request of her uncle, King Sancho IV (r. 1284–1295).

Blanca

A portrait of Blanca (her name is spelled 'BRANCA') in the ‘Portuguese Genealogies’ (16th century): Add MS 12531/3, f. 9r

Blanca gave generous sums of money to the women of Las Huelgas. Her charter includes detailed instructions of how much money each woman was to receive yearly:

A la abbadesa, dozientos maravedís; a cada una de las monjas, çient maravedís, a cada una de las que fueren para monjas, setenta marevedís; a cada una de las freyras, quarenta maravedís; a cada una de las que fueren para freyras, veynte e çinco marevedís. E mando que den cada anno a tres para ser monjas a cada una trezientos maravedís.

‘To the abbess, 200 maravedís; to each nun, 100 maravedís; to each novice, 70 maravedís; to each freyra [a type of nun], 40 maravedís; to each woman preparing to be a freyra, 25 maravedís. And I order that every year they give to three women who want to join the convent as nuns 300 maravedís’.

Photograph of the abbey of Las Huelgas de Burgos

The abbey of Santa María la Real de Las Huelgas, Burgos, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The other significant beneficiary of Blanca’s donations was the nearby Hospital del Rey. Like the abbey of Las Huelgas, the Hospital del Rey had been founded in the 12th century by King Alfonso VIII and Queen Leonor, and its connection with the royal family continued throughout the medieval period. The hospital received 6,000 maravedís in Blanca’s bequests, to be spent on the care and nursing of the poor, as well as to buy livestock to feed them. Many other religious institutions also benefited from Blanca's grant, including the church of Santa María in Burgos, the church of Santa María in Briviesca, the monastery of Santa Clara of Alcocer in Guadalajara, the monastery of Santo Domingo de Caleruega in Burgos, as well as the lepers of San Lázaro and the ‘emparedadas’ (anchorites) in Burgos.

A map of the beneficiaries of Blanca’s donations

A map of the beneficiaries of Blanca’s donations, courtesy of ArcGIS StoryMaps

Blanca’s donations were an attempt to guarantee her personal legacy and spiritual salvation. Alongside her grants, she provided specific instructions about how she wanted to be remembered by the religious community of Las Huelgas, where she was buried after her death in 1321. Most notably, she arranged for the sisters to commemorate the vigil and the anniversary of her death with 12 wax candles every year, which were to weigh exactly 10 pounds (‘cada çirio de diez libras de cera’). On the anniversary itself, the monastery had to distribute food-alms to the poor, made up of bread, wine and meat. During the year, eight chaplains had to give prayers for Blanca’s soul every day.

Tomb

The tomb of Blanca of Portugal at Las Huelgas, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Blanca’s grant functioned as a display of the piety and patronage expected from a royal infanta and the Lady of Las Huelgas. It also demonstrates how, through their donations, women were able to change the social and economic landscape of the territories over which they ruled.

The seal of Blanca of Portugal

Blanca of Portugal’s fragmentary seal: Add Ch 24806

We are extremely grateful to Joanna and Graham Barker for their generous funding of Medieval and Renaissance Women. We will publish more updates about the project on this Blog over the coming months.

 

Paula Del Val Vales

@BLMedieval

17 November 2022

Reunited! A Russian manuscript of the Alexander Romance

The British Library’s major exhibition, Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth, gives an insight into the incredible spread of Alexander’s legends across time and across cultures. Central to the show is the legendary life of Alexander the Great, known as the Alexander Romance. Written in Greek around the turn of the 3rd/4th centuries AD, the Romance was a best-seller of its time, being translated into a number of Western and Eastern languages. This blogpost examines one of the most intriguing of these versions: the Slavonic Alexander Romance.

A creature with a human body and an amimal head is entwined with a serpent like creature  An army, led by a crowned Alexander, stand in front of a crowd of blue creatures with trunks
Alexander encountering the monsters of the East, in the Slavonic Alexander Romance (Russia, 17th century): courtesy of the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin, W 151, ff. 89v–90r

The Slavonic translation of the Alexander Romance was made from the fully-developed Greek-Byzantine version of the text, probably in the 14th century in what is today Serbia, before becoming popular not only in Serbia but also in Bulgaria and Russia. The British Library is fortunate to have a remarkable manuscript of this Slavonic version of the Alexander Romance displayed in the exhibition, on generous loan from the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin.

Created in Russia in the 17th century, this manuscript is a fascinating testament to how Alexander’s legends were appropriated in medieval and early modern Russia. The 14th-century translators of the Slavonic Alexander Romance adapted both the text and the images of their Greek original. Just like the Western and Middle Eastern adaptations, the Slavonic versions of the Romance are richly illustrated. Although many of the illuminations in the Slavonic tradition go back to Greek and Byzantine models, some were devised by the Serbian, Bulgarian and Russian artists themselves.

One new illustration is the representation of Alexander’s horse, Bucephalas. Although the original Greek name of the famous stallion clearly means 'ox-headed', opinions vary about its actual meaning. Some sources say that the horse had an ox-head branding, others suggest it had a mark on its head that made it look like an ox’s head. The Slavic artists combined these two traditions, depicting the horse as bearing an ox-head mark (on its thigh), while painting on its head something resembling an ox’s horn, making the horse look like a unicorn.

A group of men on horseback. A serpent like creature by their hooves

Bucephalus in the Slavonic Alexander Romance (Russia, 17th century): Chester Beatty Library, W 151, f.110r

The Romance also records that Alexander encountered mythical sirens during his adventures, who were imagined as beautiful women living in the water. They would lure men with their singing, who would fall asleep in their reed-bed and then drown. In common with ancient Greek tradition, the Russian illustrators imagined the sirens as mythical birds with human heads, enchanting Alexander’s soldiers with their songs.

Men on horseback face two women-headed birds

The sirens imagined as human-headed birds, in the Slavonic Alexander Romance (Russia, 17th century): Chester Beatty Dublin, W 151, f. 53r

Another interesting feature of the afterlife of the Slavonic Alexander in Russia is that it is often followed in the manuscripts by another Russian historical text. The History of the Rout of Mamai records the battle in 1380 between the Russians led by Grand Duke Dimitry and the Mongol invaders. There is clearly an agenda here to elevate this historical battle (a major turning point in the Russian revolt against the Mongol Khan Mamai) onto a par with Alexander’s mythological adventures.

Left: two men on white horses battle eachother. Right: Two mounted armies charge at eachother

Grand Duke Dimitry in battle with the Mongols, in The History of the Rout of Mamai (Russia, 17th century): Yates Thompson MS 51, ff. 38v–39r

Scholars have observed that the Chester Beatty manuscript looks remarkably similar to a 17th-century copy of The History of the Rout of Mamai at the British Library. They have in common the layout of the text, the decoration, a similar pattern of damage, and 19th-century attempts to redraw the outlines of the images in pencil. A conclusive factor is that the Slavonic page numbers in the right-hand corner of the leaves in the British Library manuscript continue the sequence of those found at the end of the Chester Beatty's Slavonic Alexander Romance.

A couple lie side by side. Both are wearing crowns Top of manuscript page with red writing

The final leaf (f. 127r) of the Chester Beatty Slavonic Alexander Romance (left) is numbered '155'; the first leaf (f. 1r) of the British Library’s History of the Rout of Mamai (right) is '156'

Based on these observations, scholars have treated the two manuscripts as parts of a single original volume containing both the Slavonic Alexander Romance and The History of the Rout of Mamai. Further research has revealed that both manuscripts were purchased around 1921 from the same antiquarian dealer in Florence, who separated them into two parts, selling one to Sir Alfred Chester Beatty (1875–1968) and the other to Henry Yates Thompson (1838–1928), whose widow bequeathed it to the British Library in 1941.

Two manuscripts lie open side by side

The two halves of the original volume next to each other, the Chester Beatty Slavonic Alexander Romance on the left and the British Library’s History of the Rout of Mamai on the right

Although it is widely accepted that these manuscripts originally formed one volume, the two halves have never been compared side-by-side until the generous loan of the Chester Beatty Slavonic Alexander to the British Library’s Alexander exhibition. After more than a century apart, the two halves now stand proudly next to each other in the show.

Book your tickets now to see the reunification of this important manuscript and to join Alexander on his other adventures. Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth is open until 19 February 2023.

We are indebted to the Kusuma Trust, the Patricia G. and Jonathan S. England – British Library Innovation Fund and Ubisoft for their support towards the exhibition, as well as other trusts and private donors.

 

Peter Toth

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

10 November 2022

Florimont, flower of the world

History records that Alexander the Great was the son of King Philip II of Macedon and Queen Olympias. (A rumour that his real father was the Egyptian pharoah Nectanebus is described in our blogpost A pharaoh in disguise). But having royal parents was never enough for a popular medieval hero; they were expected to have an entire dynasty of illustrious ancestors. And so various prequels were written, conjuring up marvellous origins for Alexander, and mixing real people with invented characters.

One of these origin stories is found in the French Roman de Florimont. This tells of Alexander's imaginary grandparents, the Albanian hero, Florimont, or ‘flower of the world’, and Romadanaple, a beautiful princess. Florimont was the son of Mataquas, Duke of Albania, and his wife Edonia, while Romadanaple’s parents were a certain King Philip of Greece, and Amorydale, daughter of the ‘King of Africa’.   

A kneeling messenger hands a letter to a king seated on a throne beside a queen, both crowned and holding sceptres

Alexander the Great’s parents, King Philip of Macedon and Queen Olympias, in Histoire ancienne jusqu'a César (France, 14th century): Royal MS 16 G VII, f. 121r

The romance of Florimont begins in Greece. King Philip, having founded the city of Philippolis, is under attack from the evil Camdiobras, King of Hungary. Philip has a beautiful daughter, Romadanaple, who he keeps hidden from her numerous suitors; but she becomes the subject of unwelcome attentions from Camdiobras, who threatens to carry her off. Meanwhile, in Albania, Duke Mataquas has a son named Florimont, whose destiny is revealed to him in a dream — he sees a lion cub leaving his palace to join a powerful male lion, then going on to defeat a monster and a huge wild boar.

But all doesn't proceed simply. The young Florimont falls under the spell of the Lady of the Island of Celée, who takes him to her enchanted world. He is rescued by his mother and freed from the spell, but spends some time wandering about under the name Pauvre Perdu (poor lost boy). At last, Florimont joins a group of warriors who are riding to rescue King Philip from Camdiobras. By single-handedly defeating the Hungarian attacker, Florimont wins the hand of the beautiful Romadanaple and her inheritance, which he unites with his own.

Inside a palace bearded king places the crown on the head of a kneeling prince with a crowned lady kneeling beside him. A group of courtiers watch.

The coronation of Florimont and Romadanaple, in the Livre du Roy Florimont fiz du duc d'AlbanyeParis, Bibliotheque nationale de France, ms français 12566, f. 179v 

Florimont goes on to have many adventures, including defeating a monstrous sea dragon and returning to Albania to rescue his parents from a giant, who has imprisoned them in a castle. Most importantly, Florimont and Romadanaple have a son, who becomes Philip II of Macedon. Philip marries Olympias and their son is none other than Alexander the Great.  

Aimon de Varennes, author of the romance of Florimont, was a native of Chatillon d’Azergues in the Lyonnais district of France. Aimon claimed to have unearthed the tale during a trip to Philippopolis (now Plovdiv in Bulgaria).

A photograph of a walled medieval town with towers on a hilltop.-800wi
The village of Chatillon d’Azergues (Rhone, France), photographed by Milardello, 2009 

Aimon may have travelled to that part of the world, but his assertion that he translated the text from Greek to Latin and then into French appears to be fictive. His Romance does retain certain ‘Greek’ words, which demonstrate a very elementary knowledge of the language. The author’s intentions and his claims as to the origins of the tale are laid out in the prequel in a 13th-century manuscript of the Roman de Florimont (Harley MS 4487).

Aymez….Fist le Rommans si sagement

Il lavoit en grece veue ...                                     

A Phelippole la trova                                            

A chastillon len aporta                                         

Ainsi com il lavoit enpris                                     

Lat de latin en romanz mis                                   

('Aymon conceived the romance well

He had seen it in Greece

He found it in Philippolis

Brought it to Chatillon

As he had learned it

He changed it from Latin into Romance')

(f. 3r, column 1, lines 8–9; 31–36)

A text page in 2 columns with red initials, and a note in cursive script beneath
The opening page of the manuscript with the author’s name and a 14th century ownership inscription in the lower margin, 'Pierre Derloit prestre ?Corodathis' (?Lotharingia, 1295): Harley MS 4487, f. 3r

Towards the end of the tale, Aimon even claims that French is not his mother tongue:

As fransois voel de tant server

Que ma langue lor est sauvage   

(f. 85v, column 2, lines 13–14)

You can discover more tales connected to Alexander in our major exhibition, Alexander the Great: the Making of a Myth. The show is open at the British Library until 19 February 2023, and tickets can be purchased online or in person, subject to availability.

 

Chantry Westwell

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

08 November 2022

The expenses of Queen Eleanor of Castile

A Psalter, a silver belt, brooches and clasps, Parisian jewels, brown bread from Cologne, nuts and pears: these are all items that Queen Eleanor of Castile (r. 1272–1290) bought between September 1289 and December 1290. Eleanor was the queen consort of the English king, Edward I (r. 1272–1307), and her wardrobe account (Add MS 35294), compiled by her treasurer, John of Berewyk (fl. 1279–1312), contains a set of her receipts and expenses from the final year of her life.

This manuscript has recently been digitised as part of our Medieval and Renaissance Women project and it can now be viewed online.

The opening page of the wardrobe account

The first page of Eleanor’s wardrobe account: Add MS 35294, f. 3r

This account may seem humble in appearance, but it opens a window into the world of Eleanor’s court, her household, and her day-to-day life. The expenses listed range from the most mundane and everyday items, such as her food, payments to her messengers, and the maintenance of her horses, to the incredibly lavish and luxurious, including purchases of jewels, pearls and Venetian glasses. The payments are expressed in pounds, shillings and pence. Here is a typical entry, in this case recording the queen’s purchase of writing materials:

An excerpt from the wardrobe account of Eleanor of Castile

Parcamenum. xvj die Februarii ibidem pro parcameno empto ad letteras Regine et ad libros Garderobe. xxd.

'Parchment. 16 February [1290], in the same place. For parchment bought for the letters and wardrobe books of the queen, 20 pence.'

Entry from 16 February 1290 recording expenses on parchment: Add MS 35294, f. 6v

Between 1289 and 1290, Eleanor bought ink and several rolls of parchment for her letters and wardrobe accounts, as well as red wax to seal her letters, and gold for illuminating her manuscripts. The queen even had an illuminator in her retinue, Godfrey ‘pictor’, who was responsible for decorating her books and is also mentioned in the accounts. All these purchases demonstrate that Queen Eleanor was an avid reader and writer, a woman interested in the patronage of illuminated manuscripts, and that she was in frequent contact with her networks through the exchange of letters.

A number of Eleanor’s letters have survived to the present day. They include another letter digitised and catalogued as part of our Medieval and Renaissance Women project, dating from 1280, in which Eleanor granted power to William de Verges, yeoman, to do fealty in her name to Guy, Count of Flanders, for the land that had fallen to her by hereditary right.

A letter of Eleanor of Castile

Letter of Eleanor of Castile with her seal, sent to Guy, Count of Flanders: Add Ch 8129

Eleanor’s wardrobe account also provides insight into her personal interests. Her treasurer recorded payments that relate to the queen’s homeland — the kingdom of Castile — and that show Eleanor’s longstanding connection to her native kingdom. For example, one entry indicates that the queen bought vestments and tunics of Spanish cloth (‘de panno Ispannie’), while another shows that Eleanor bought gum for the illumination of her manuscripts from the Iberian Peninsula (‘gumma alba de Ispannia’). The wardrobe account also records payments made to the queen’s own fowler (or bird hunter), as well as the purchase of birds (avibus, volucres). This shows the queen’s interest in hunting, which she continued to practise until the end of her life.

Image from an illuminated manuscript showing a woman hunting deer

Bas-de-page of the Alphonso Psalter (c 1284–1316), depicting a crowned woman hunting, suggested to be Eleanor of Castile: Add MS 24686, f. 13v

The final entries from Eleanor’s wardrobe account include several payments relating to the queen’s death on 28 November 1290, when she was 49 years old, as well as the arrangements made for her funeral between November and December 1290. Eleanor’s treasurer notably paid 7 pence to buy a bushel of barley, used as part of the procedure of embalming the queen’s body (‘pro uno bussello ardei empto ad ponendum in corpus Regine’). This was a common practice for English medieval monarchs. The wardrobe account even records Eleanor's death, with a small marginal note in Latin that reads ‘decessus regine’.

Eleanor's tomb effigy at Westminster Abbey, showing her head and shoulders

The queen’s effigy from her tomb: courtesy of Westminster Abbey

We are extremely grateful to Joanna and Graham Barker for their generous funding of Medieval and Renaissance Women. We will publish regular updates about the project on this Blog over the coming months.

 

Paula Del Val Vales

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

06 November 2022

Mary, Queen of Scots: two new acquisitions

Following hot on the heels of the exhibition Elizabeth & Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens, we are delighted to announce that the British Library has acquired two documents relating to Mary, Queen of Scots’ imprisonment in England. The first, Add MS 89480, is a letter written by the Scottish queen just 5 weeks after she dramatically escaped from Lochleven Castle and fled into England in May 1568. The second, Add Roll 77740/1, is a set of official financial accounts for Mary's upkeep at Wingfield Manor and Tutbury Castle for the period 18 December 1584 to 27 February 1585 (with Add Roll 77740/2 being a duplicate set of the same accounts).

The opening of the financial accounts

The opening of the official financial accounts for the upkeep of Mary, Queen of Scots: Add Roll 77740/1, membrane 1

On 16 May 1568, Mary and a small group of supporters crossed the Solway Firth in a fishing boat and landed at Workington in Cumberland. The following day, Mary was apprehended by the Deputy Governor of Cumberland and escorted to Carlisle Castle, where she was held under armed guard. Mary wrote immediately to her cousin, Elizabeth I, requesting refuge and military aid to regain her Scottish throne. She described the treasonable actions of her enemies and expressed ‘the confidence I have in you, not only for the safety of my life, but also to aid and assist me in my just quarrel’.

Over the coming days and weeks, Mary persisted in writing long impassioned letters to ‘her nearest kinswoman and perfect friend’, unaware that Elizabeth had already been persuaded by her chief advisor, William Cecil, not to meet with her unwelcome guest. At first, Mary continued to press for an audience with Elizabeth to plead her cause, but as the weeks went by her letters became increasingly reproachful and she complained bitterly about being ‘dishonoured by the refusal of your presence’ and the injustice of her imprisonment.

Mary's letter to Jacques Bochetel

Letter from Mary, Queen of Scots, to Jacques Bochetel, Sieur de la Forest, 26 June 1568: Add MS 89480

The newly-acquired letter has remained in a private collection in France since the late 1800s and is therefore unknown to scholars. It was written at the exact point Mary realised her English captivity would not be temporary and that Elizabeth was being disingenuous towards her. It is one of the first pieces of evidence for this change of attitude and marks the moment when Mary turned instead to her French family and supporters. 

Detail of Mary's letter to Jacques Bochetel

Mary's signature at the foot of the letter: Add MS 89480

Mary sent the letter from Carlisle on 26 June 1568 to Jacques Bochetel, the French ambassador to England, petitioning him to lend her servant George Douglas 300 écus and to provide safe conduct for him to travel to France for an audience with Charles IX. The first part of the letter is written in a French secretarial hand, but Mary also added a few lines of her own in order to give her request greater force. George Douglas had played an instrumental role in Mary’s escape from Lochleven Castle and was now being entrusted to carry her letters to Charles IX and his mother, Catherine de’ Medici. Other letters by Mary to Charles and Catherine survive in French and Russian archives, in which she petitioned for French aid to her supporters in Scotland and to help her escape imprisonment.

By the time the financial accounts were compiled in 1585, Mary had been held in English captivity for almost 17 years. She had recently been transferred into the custody of Sir Ralph Sadler, and his official correspondence for the same period reveals the pressure he came under to provide for his charge as cheaply as possible. On 18 January 1585, Lord Burghley informed Sadler, ‘hir Majesty … willed me to wryte ernestly unto yow, now at your being at Tutbury, to devise how the chardg may not excede above the rate of mdll (£1500)  by yer.’  The accounts may have been drawn up precisely to inform this cost cutting exercise. They offer a fascinating snapshot of Mary’s life as a prisoner as well as the considerable costs and logistics involved in her upkeep and security.

The different types of meats consumed by Mary

The different types of meats consumed by Mary: Add Roll 77740/1, membrane 2

The accounts reveal that Mary continued to be treated as a queen during her confinement. She was attended upon by a large household, dined under her canopy of state and enjoyed elaborate food. She was served two courses at both dinner and supper, with each course consisting of a choice of 16 individual dishes. The accounts provide a detailed record of monies received and paid out for a wide range of foodstuffs, from bread, butter and eggs to meat (beef, mutton, lamb, veal, boar, pork), poultry (capons, geese, hens, heron, partridge, blackbirds) and fish (cod, salt salmon, eels, herring, plaice, haddock, sole, oysters, pike, roach, carp and trout). Also included are spices (pepper, saffron, cloves, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, mace), exotic items (oranges, olives, capers, dates, almonds, figs), and sweet luxuries (marmalade, caraway biscuits, sucket or fruits preserved in heavy syrup), as well as wine and ale.

Some of the exotic foodstuffs consumed by Mary

Some of the exotic foodstuffs consumed by Mary: Add Roll 77740/1, membrane 3d

Costs for household supplies are also listed. These include lighting, fuel, cooking utensils and brewing equipment, cord for bedsteads, a bucket for the well, ‘mattinge for the Quenes lodginge’, and soap ‘for washing the Queenes lynnen and the naperie of the house’. In addition, the salaries of laundresses, turnspits, purveyors and labourers are recorded alongside specific charges for ‘mendinge the crome and scouring of armour’ and ‘settinge up and making of bedstedes’. Even though Mary was only occasionally permitted to ride, she continued to keep her own horses. The accounts provide a list of stable expenses such as payment for lanterns, rushes, hay, oats and litter, and for the ‘showinge and medicyninge of the horses’.   

The final section of the accounts

The final portion of the accounts sets out the cost of moving Mary, Queen of Scots, from Wingfield Manor to Tutbury Castle in January 1585: Add Roll 77740/1, membrane 5

Despite enjoying a deluxe form of house arrest, the accounts remind us that Mary was very much a prisoner of the English crown. The 1580s were a time of escalating religious crisis in Europe. Elizabeth’s ministers, fearful for the safety of their queen and the survival of Protestant England, ensured that Mary was kept under increasingly tight security. The salaries of 40 soldiers who kept watch over her are listed in the accounts, with a final entry setting out the cost of Mary’s removal from the pleasant Wingfield Manor in Derbyshire to the much more remote and secure location of Tutbury Castle in Staffordshire in January 1585. 

We are extremely grateful to Jeri Bapasola for supporting the acquisition of Mary’s letter. Both items are available for consultation by researchers in our Manuscripts Reading Room.  They have also been digitised as part of the Medieval and Renaissance Women digitisation project, funded by Joanna and Graham Barker, and can now be viewed online: letter of Mary, Queen of Scots (Add MS 89480); household accounts for Mary's upkeep (Add Roll 77740/1 and Add Roll 77740/2).

 

Andrea Clarke

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

 

05 November 2022

A pharaoh in disguise

Nectanebus II was the last pharaoh and native king of Egypt, who reigned from approximately 360 to 342 BC. His rule began relatively successfully, but he fled Egypt after he was defeated by the Persian ruler, Artaxerxes III. Little is known of his life thereafter, but rumours spread that Nectanebus had an affair with Olympias, queen of Macedonia, and that he fathered her illegitimate son. That boy grew up to become one of the most famous people in the ancient world: Alexander the Great. You can explore their story in our major exhibition, Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth.

Olympias enthroned, with attendants, and Nectanebus in a white robe with a case of astronomical instruments.

Olympias enthroned with Nectanebus wearing a white robe and holding a case of astronomical instruments, in Le livre et la vraye hystoire du bon roy Alixandre (Paris, c. 1420–1425): Royal MS 20 B XX, f. 7r

Stories about Alexander’s alleged Egyptian origins gained considerable popularity during Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. They included legends about his life and conquests, such as the Greek Alexander Romance attributed to Pseudo-Callisthenes. This Greek romance became the main source for later medieval legends of the Macedonian conqueror, many of which began with extended prologues recounting Alexander’s conception via Olympias’s (not so) secret affair with Nectanebus, the exiled pharaoh.

Nectanebus enthroned within a large tower, above him is written ‘Nectaneb[us] rois d’Egipte’ (Nectanebus king of Egypt). Left to Nectanebus is another tower with two trumpeters.

‘Nectanebus King of Egypt’ enthroned, in the prose Roman d'Alexandre (Southern Netherlands, c. 1290–1300): Harley MS 4979, f. 4v

Some medieval texts embraced the rumours of Alexander’s Egyptian ancestry. Other authors were more sceptical and condemned them as slandering the Macedonian queen’s fidelity to her husband, King Philip II of Macedonia. Even in texts that claimed Philip to be Alexander's real father, Nectanebus still played a key role in Alexander’s early life as his childhood mentor, teaching him how to read the stars and prophesise the future.

In the prime of his reign as pharaoh, Nectanebus was a skilled practitioner of astrology and divination. According to the Greek Alexander Romance, he would regularly procure a bronze basin of rain or spring water and would use miniature ships to predict the outcomes of sea battles. He could also influence the fate of battles by moulding wax figures of men and bringing them to life, only to sabotage the miniature boats in his water basin, meaning that the real enemy ships would sink.

Nectanebus, crowned and dressed in medieval royal attire, enchanting a bronze basin of water with two miniature ships inside.

Nectanebus in his chamber, enchanting a basin of water: Royal MS 20 B XX, f. 4v

One day, to his misfortune, Nectanebus foresaw his own downfall with the invasion of Artaxerxes, and the pharaoh decided to flee, knowing that it was too late to change his fate. Nectanebus had his head shaved in disguise and he soon established himself as an Egyptian prophet in Macedonia.  

Left: Nectanebus being shaved by an attendant; Right: Nectanebus observing the stars and fleeing from Egypt on horseback.

Nectanebus being shaved, observing the stars and fleeing from Egypt: Harley MS 4979, f. 6v

Word of his wondrous prophetic skills spread in Macedonia, until Nectanebus eventually caught the attention of the beautiful Queen Olympias. She approached the prophet for advice since she had been unable to conceive an heir by King Philip, and was worried that she would be deposed and that Philip would re-marry.

Nectanebus had also supposedly read Olympias’s future, predicting that she would conceive a son by the god Ammon, who would appear to her in a dream in the form of a serpent or dragon. But this was all part of the exiled pharaoh’s deceptive plan, since that night he disguised himself as Ammon. Manuscript illuminations usually depict the seduction scene with Nectanebus as a human, embracing Olympias in bed, while a dragon watches over them, representing his serpentine disguise.

On the left, Nectanebus, dressed in courtly attire, sitting with a text in his hand and addressing a crowned Olympias; on the right, they embrace each other in bed while a dragon watches over them.

Nectanebus addressing Olympias, and embracing each other in bed while a dragon watches over them, in the Talbot Shrewsbury Book (Rouen, 1444–1445): Royal MS 15 E VI, f. 6r

When Olympias became pregnant, she was accused of infidelity. The Legend reveals that Nectanebus salvaged her reputation by transforming into a dragon at a royal banquet, demonstrating to Philip and the slanderers that it really was the god Ammon who had visited Olympias’s bedchamber and fathered her child.

Nectanebus as a dragon approaching Olympias while she is sat with Philip and two guests at a banquet.

Nectanebus as a dragon approaching Olympias at a banquet (Paris, 1333– c. 1340): Royal MS 19 D I, f. 4v

When Alexander the Great was born, Nectanebus was supposed to become the child’s mentor, teaching him the astrological arts. But Nectanebus soon met his tragic end. The adolescent Alexander pushed him off a cliff, mocking the fact that Nectanebus could not foresee his own death, despite claiming to be a skilled prophet.

Alexander and an attendant stand on top of a building whilst Nectanebus falls upside down to his death.

Alexander and an attendant watch while Nectanebus falls to his death: Royal MS 19 D I, f. 5v

The whereabouts of Nectanebus’s burial is unknown. In the medieval romance tradition, he was laid to rest when Alexander ordered a burial for him after finally discovering that his real father was the last pharaoh of Egypt.

Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth runs at the British Library until 19 February 2023. Tickets can be bought in advance or in person, subject to availability.

 

Giulia Gilmore

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